Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim, 2011)

Jee-woon Kim directed one of the most entertaining films of 2010. The Good, The Bad, The Weird was a bizarre romp through early twentieth century Korea, that brought out all of the tricks audiences were hoping for, but were ultimately denied in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was an adventure film from the old school when more of the set pieces were actual stunts committed by real live stunt people, and there were no digital monkeys. The characters were charismatic and entertaining and the adventure scenes were exciting, fun and incredibly well executed. A Tale of Two Sisters, the other film he is know for, is definitely worth seeing as well.

Now, he's created a film that seems as if it's a newly discovered Hitchcock script, directed by Eli Roth. The serpentine narrative is full of surprises and well crafted suspense, and then adorned with a heavy layer of Hostel's bloody brutality. This is not for the squeamish or the sensitive. Minus the blood and brutality it's a top notch, cat and mouse suspense film, as good as any I've seen in a long time. It's not a film specifically about shock value, and there are specific reasons in the story for the kind of graphic content in the film, though I have no doubt if there have been and will be critics who attack it because of just how graphic and brutal it is. If enough audiences see it, it's going to be labeled torture porn by the more reactionary elements of both the critical community and movie goers. I may be somewhat biased because the obsession I have with film began as a spark of intense interest in practical special effects. It was back in the days when The Prowler, Slumber Party Massacre, Driller Killer and hundreds of others just like them crammed video store shelves. It wasn't long after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science created the Best Special Effects category specifically because they felt Rick Baker deserved recognition for what he did with the transformation scene in American Werewolf in London. David Cronenberg began his career writing and directing weirdo gross out film of a hyper bizarre variety, and has since become a critical darling. I'd suggest that if you've never seen John Carpenter's The Thing, you do so as soon as is humanly possible. If you can come back and tell me that those special effects don't hold up as well today as any practical or digital effects, I'm going to know you're lying. All of this is really to say that I've seen enough of the actual torture porn films to recognize one when I see it, and though I admire the technical advances many of those older films made, I also know they aren't really very good movies. If there's any doubt as to the contribution they made to film as an art, I'd suggest going back to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Saving Private Ryan again (just to name a few). Those films all prominently feature special effects technologies that were developed on the exact kind of cinematic bloody mess that pretentious film snobs love to vocally hate at every opportunity. But as the internetz say... haters gonna hate, so I'll step down off of my soap box and get back to reviewing the movie now.

Jee-woon Kim has crafted a bold film which is at times suspenseful, exciting, disturbing, and an assault on the psyche and sensibilities of the audience. He pulls no punches while depicting the story of a Korean Special Agent (if at some point it was made clear exactly what agency he was working for, I didn't quite catch it and it doesn't matter in relation to the story) in his hunt for, and punishment of, the serial killer who brutally murdered his fiance. It repeatedly punches the viewer in the gut, and seems to almost be challenging the audience to continue. The film doesn't revel in its violence or gore, but it doesn't give the audience the opportunity to look away from it either. The two characters at the center of this film are controlled by their compulsions. One has the compulsion to victimize, humiliate and kill innocent young woman. The other has the compulsion to humiliate, victimize and eventually kill the first. There are no real hero's here, and the road this film follows in a hard one indeed. It starts off relatively slow, and like any great suspense film, the tension increases the entire time, but in I Saw the Devil, it's not just the tension that increases, but the pace and rhythm of the film. The beginning feels very deliberate and somewhat slow, and it continues to build speed until the beginning of the third act, when some new elements are introduced creating a scene in a remote house that is shot and edited as if it could be taking place in a fun house maze and during which it feels as if things are completely out of control and the film might just fly off the rails at any second. The third act, as a whole, is reason enough to see this film. It's a masterwork. It's genuinely thrilling and genuinely surprising.

To suggest there is a protagonist in the film would be to mislead. This film essentially has two protagonists, and the crux of it is their antagonism of each other. About half way through the film, it's no longer clear who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. Both leads Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi are magnetic and charismatic, though their characters are presented as polar opposites. Byung-hun Lee plays the special agent who's just lost his fiance and is on this insane mission to extract what he believes is the rightful revenge from Min-sik Choi, a brutal serial killer. Min-Sik Choi is going to be familiar to fans of Oldboy, from Chan-wook Park, one of the best films in at least a decade, if not two. He is as good here, if not better, in a role that has some similarities to his famed character in that film, but also some extremely important differences. Here, he's a much more animated character for whom nothing is sacred and the only reason to hide anything is to avoid getting arrested. He's loud, brash, completely insane, and it's impossible not to watch him for any second he's on screen. It's not a character that is exactly a force of nature, because he's much more calculating and methodical than that description suggests. It would be more appropriate to say that he very much seems like a ship whose sail has caught the winds of a hurricane and learned well how to follow them without getting capsized.
I'm not sure whether Byung-hun Lee would be recognizable to American audiences. He played Storm Shadow (the ninja constantly at the side of Sienna Miller's Baroness, you know, the bad ninja, in black) in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and though the film itself was relatively successful, character certainly wasn't the films strong suit. I'm willing to bet that the majority of the film going American public are most likely to remember his martial arts skills, and little else. This film will give them something to remember him by. There is a whole lot more to this character than prowess in martial arts. The journey he takes, from a newly enganged fiancé, goofily in love to a raging, revenge bent, teetering on the edge of becoming a homicidal maniac is impressive and he puts in a great performance that sways back and forth between hollow eyed determination and crushed soul like a drunken sailor trying to swab the decks in the middle of a typhoon. This is a great role for a leading man in that it has many of the attributes we expect for a leading man's role, but it also subverts many of those attributes smartly and with dexterity. Both Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi have genuine movie star charisma, and if given the opportunity to play roles which are more well written than generic "bad guy ninja" they both have all the tools it takes to be big stars in American film.

Jee-woon Kim is obviously well versed in cinematic history. In much the same way he was able to take the adventure films of yesteryear and create something both new and classic at the same time with The Good, The Bad, The Weird, this film takes the kind of classic suspense tales from the past and brings the their atmosphere, tension and purity of storytelling into today's cinema. I Saw the Devil wraps all of that up with the kind of blunt force assault on the senses which wouldn't have been tolerated fifty or sixty years ago. It has some of the excitement of the kind of chase film that North By Northwest was, some of the psychological punch of Repulsion, and Vertigo's serpentine plot with a healthy helping of sheer, unabashed brutality and realism. The unfortunate truth is that too many film makers rely on the shock and disgust created by imagery of this kind to bother attempting to layer a real story and real film making accumen into the final product. Jee-woon Kim takes that imagery, and succeeds in making it secondary by focusing on solid, quality film craft. As I said earlier, this is not a film for everyone. In fact, this is definitely not a film for the mass audience Hollywood spends most of its time and resources trying to reach. I can however say that the last film I saw that seemed to so perfectly fit my own cinematic predilictions was There Will Be Blood, though in a way that probably couldn't be more different. What they have in common is that they use high caliber talent and great film making to deliver a relatively subversive, but not preachy thematic message. The combination of the graphic contents ability to elicit a visceral reaction, and the quality of the story, film making, performances make this a film which the audience member who began his or her love affair with film by watching pulp, horror and exploitation, but grew to have a greater appreciation for solid film making and intelligent storytelling is really going to enjoy and find something uniquely special.

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